Critics should think twice before abandoning UNRWA

Critics should think twice before abandoning UNRWA

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A Palestinian youth carries food supplies at a distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at Al-Shati refugee camp, Gaza. (Reuters)

Much of the so-called “deal of the century” — US President Donald Trump’s peace plan — ranges between an Israeli government wish list and some equally wishful thinking by the US and Israel. Both are under the delusion that they can impose their will and interests on the Palestinians, in the bad old and unsustainable tradition of might makes right. Among the plan’s numerous flaws, there is a continuing refusal to realistically and fairly address the ongoing injustices and suffering of millions of Palestinian refugees, many of them still languishing in camps.

Currently there are more than 8.7 million Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons, 5.6 million of them registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Most of them are descendants of the 750,000 refugees who were forced from their homes or fled the horrors of the 1948 war, which is officially known in Israel as the War of Independence, but which Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) and which marked the beginning of their decades-long, ongoing period of dispossession and exile. Others lost their homes in Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War or due to internal disruptions in their host countries. In the absence of a political solution to this crisis of more than 70 years, UNRWA, which was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly, is mandated to provide the refugees with human development and humanitarian services.

Yet, despite the devotion of its more than 30,000 employees, most of them Palestinian refugees themselves and often working in the most difficult of circumstances to ensure core services, UNRWA is a most unfairly maligned organization — coming under constant attack from Israel and the US, sometimes from the Palestinians, and even from within. Some of the criticisms are legitimate, but most are a reflection of the failure of those critics to address the root causes of the conflict and the refugee issue in particular, or of their complete lack of understanding of the complex environment and conditions that the organization operates in. After all, there is not exactly a queue of states or international organizations willing and able to replace UNRWA in providing services such as primary and vocational education, health care, relief and social support, infrastructure and camp improvements, microfinance, and emergency responses, including during situations of armed conflict, as its employees do day in and day out.

A major conundrum for UNRWA and, for all intents and purposes, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is that, in an ideal world, they would become surplus to requirements and be disbanded. But armed conflicts, externally and internally, are pushing people out of their homes and leaving them not just homeless and traumatized, but also stateless. Worse, what was expected to be a temporary status until it became possible to return home, has become in many cases a more permanent one, and has led to a generation of refugees who cannot go home.

It is left to organizations like UNRWA and UNHCR to pick up the pieces left by the warring sides and provide protection and dignity for refugees and displaced persons under the most difficult circumstances. For the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war and its aftermath, UNRWA became a lifeline in their places of exile in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. And, yes, the hope is that one day UNRWA won’t be needed and not a single Palestinian will remain stateless or live in a refugee camp. Nevertheless, as long as this is not even remotely likely, the constant attacks on this organization are not only unjustified and counter-productive — they are an assault on the Palestinian people as human beings and as a nation.

In recent years, attacks on UNRWA by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump have intensified, as part of their menacing plan to “solve” the Palestinian issue by denying the descendants of the original refugees their human rights: A position that contravenes international law, is immoral, and risks conflict and destabilization in those areas where refugees reside. To blame UNRWA, which has protected the refugees under the most testing of circumstances — civil wars, occupation and oppression — for perpetuating the Palestinian refugees issue is utter demagoguery. It is aimed at distracting from such politicians’ failure to reach a political solution and wind down the organization, which has the interests of these refugees at heart and serves as their best advocate. Without UNRWA, the Palestinian refugees would lack protection and the supply of their basic services would be exposed to the arbitrariness of others, let alone of wars and violent incursions.

One of the accusations leveled against the agency is that it is too costly. This is far from the truth and its projected $1.4 billion budget for this year, considering its mandate and the complex and difficult conditions under which it operates, is actually a testimony to the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of UNRWA. It is also the only UN organization that provides employment to the Palestinian refugees themselves.

The constant attacks on this organization are not only unjustified and counter-productive — they are an assault on the Palestinian people.

Yossi Mekelberg

Despite the recent extension of its mandate to 2023, which was a vote of confidence in the role of UNRWA and its operations, this confidence hasn’t been matched by a budget to adequately reflect such trust. Inexcusably, and for its entire existence, the organization has been forced to plead with donor countries every single year. To make things worse, Washington, in a deliberate act of sabotage, in 2018 cut its entire contribution, which amounted to a third of UNRWA’s budget. Since then, the agency has been in crisis mode and, although in 2019 other countries came to the rescue, this year the budget is forecast to run out by April, which would have the horrendous implication of bringing all the organization’s services to a halt.

Those who proactively long for the demise of UNRWA, and those who by their inaction are letting this happen, should have second thoughts about the disastrous humanitarian and political implications of their folly.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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